“Everything is connected.”

Ideas around theories related to connectivity posit that everything is connected. That space, time, and energy are contiguous and analogous.

The interconnected challenges facing the earth’s system and on the negotiating table for decision makers meeting in Rio, has been one of the central issues being discussed here at the Forum. And water, that most basic element of life, perhaps embodies this discussion more than any other of the earth’s resources.

At the Water Security session on Day 2, speaker after speaker trotted out examples of how water, food, energy, climate, and other natural cycles are all deeply connected.

For instance, the global food trade is inextricably linked to international water flows and availability, argues Richard Lawford of Morgan State University. When Brazilians eat Californian fruits, they in effect also consume the water used to produce these.

Because “inter-connected challenges require inter-connected solutions” – an oft-heard refrain here at the Forum –the world cannot solve water problems without also looking at food, energy and the environment, and vice-versa.

Yet, as the panelists point out, governments still treat these problems in the silos of different ministries and departments, as if they are separate issues. And in the latest Rio+20 negotiation text, the section on energy contains nary a word about water.

So how can we bring about these “integrated approaches”?

According to Kuni Takeuchi of ICHARM and Karin Lexen of the Swedish Water House, the development of a common language that allows different players to better talk to one another and communicate risks will be essential; especially when it comes to conversations between politicians, businesses and scientists.

Prof. Takeuchi argued further that “disaster is social, but risk is political: only politicians possess the budget and control to integrate the many players.” Political leaders therefore occupy a central place in coordination and integration.

This view elicited differing opinions from both the panel and the floor. An audience member took to a different phrasing: “water is political, but benefits are social”; thus, if we are able to link water management with security (less water-related crises) and economic benefits, thereby articulating the interests more clearly, coordination and integration would be likelier to happen.

Meanwhile, a fellow panelist did not think the focus should be on the politicians at all. “Politicians are aware,” said Dipak Gyawali, a former Nepalese Minister of Water Resources. “The question is what they do with that awareness.”

According to Gyawali, three critical forces shape policy and society: bureaucratic hierarchy, market individualism, and egalitarian activism.

“Most politicians come from social movements, labor unions or business interests. The way they define issues and problems differ from how, say, a scientist would.”

“Processes are hijacked by bureaucrats. Coordination and integration never happen through bureaucracy!” he said.

Gyawali called for constructive engagement.

“If there is constructive engagement between them, you get stable policies. Otherwise, you get single-minded solutions that end up creating more problems.”

Farm research works

Over last 30 years, Brazil has transformed from being a food importer into one of the world’s great breadbaskets, while also decreasing once epically high rates of deforestation and revitalizing some of their most degraded landscapes. This is largely because of increased expenditures in farm research.

EMBRAPA, Brazil’s national farm research institute, does everything from state-of-the-art crop improvement research to creating ultra-thin, edible wrapping paper for food that changes color when the food goes bad, to using nanotechnology to create durable, biodegradable fabrics and medical gauze.

According to the panelists, science is critical to informing policies that ensure complimentary investments, the development of needed institutions that can exploit linkages, implementation pathways and foster new national, regional, and global alliances for sustainable agriculture.

The scientific community has come together in a remarkable way since the first Earth Summit 20 years ago in Rio. The focus on issues related to planetary boundaries is extremely important,” noted co-chair Thomas Rosswall, Professor em., Chair, CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

“We are dealing with very complex issues that will not be solved over the next week in Rio. We need to continue to strengthen our collaboration with various stakeholders, to engage much more strongly with the private sector and all partners interested in ensuring food security for the global population.

“Without support for agriculture we can not have hope for the world,” he added.

Asia-Africa Perspectives: Collective Action, Genetic Alchemy, and Boosting Yields for Sustainability

In sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 30 percent of the people suffer from hunger and malnutrition due to chronically low farm yields, national governments have joined forces on continent-wide and regional efforts aimed at scaling evidence-based approaches to improve farm productivity.

Poor capacity, weak national institutions, and inadequate financial resources are also cited as major challenges facing Africa in its battle against food insecurity.

“African countries and ecologies are highly diverse,” said Ruvimbo Mabeza-Chimedza of Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension in Zimbabwe.

“A regional food security approach takes a number of issues into account and focuses action around areas of cooperation. Overlapping membership is necessary because of the diversity of the continent and its resources,” she said.

One response that has generated great enthusiasm in Africa and amongst development partners has been the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP), which focuses on improving land and water management, market access, food supply, and research to transform Africa agriculture. The effort is being spearheaded by African governments under the auspices of the African Union and with support from a broad range of development partners.

Despite these efforts, much more still needs to be done to address food insecurity on the Continent, she added.

In Asia, Ram Badan Singh of the Indian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, spoke about the importance of genetic alchemy and efficiency enhancements to increase farm productivity sustainably.

For example, scientists are working on developing and increasing farmer adoption of new “scuba” rice varieties that can survive under flood-like conditions that are projected to increase with the on set of climate change.

“A single gene makes the difference between a big harvest and no harvest,” he noted.

For Singh, eliminating hunger should be viewed as a moral, social, economic imperative.

“We must give targeted attention to accelerate adaptation to manage risks. We must deepen investments in research, in building human resources and strengthening the role of private sector to make use of available technologies that enhance farmers capacity, and improve incomes and lives,” he said. “They cannot be left behind, languished in the backwaters of poverty and hunger.”

Future Earth: New global platform for sustainability research launched at Rio+20

A new 10-year international initiative to deliver solution oriented research for sustainability in partnership with society

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (14 June) — An alliance of international partners from global science, research funding and UN bodies, launched a bold new 10-year initiative on global environmental change research for sustainability at the Forum on Science and Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development on Thursday. Future Earth – research for global sustainability, will provide a cutting-edge platform to coordinate scientific research which is designed and produced in partnership with governments, business and, more broadly, society.

“We need a new approach to address the critical challenges of global environmental change and sustainable development which is more interdisciplinary, more international, more collaborative and more responsive to the users of research”, said Prof. Diana Liverman, co-Director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona and co-Chair of the Future Earth design team. Future Earth will bring together natural scientists, social scientists, engineers and the humanities with funders and policy makers to align research agendas, understand and anticipate environmental change, and develop innovative solutions.

The initiative will embody an inter- and trans-disciplinary approach to provide early warning signals of environmental risk and change, and stimulate new research to support the transition of societies towards sustainability. At the simplest level Future Earth must answer fundamental questions about how and why the global environment is changing, what are likely future changes, what the implications are for the wellbeing of humans and other species, what choices can be made to enhance resilience, create positive futures, and to reduce harmful risks and vulnerabilities, and how this knowledge can support decisions and sustainable development. Future Earth will have a new global governance body and secretariat, building on the strengths of the existing core global environmental change programme, which are co-sponsored by ICSU and other members of the Alliance.
A series of consultations on how to frame the research questions will engage researchers, policy makers and practitioners, starting in the coming months. These initial consultations will involve an online survey and regional workshops in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Middle East, beginning in the second half of 2012. “We are very excited that Future Earth has made regional consultations a priority of its initial design phase”, said Tanya Abrahamse, CEO of the South African Biodiversity Research Institute and member of the Transition Team.

“Future Earth will make the vital link between the global and regional levels by scaling up international collaboration on research to inform solutions and transformations towards sustainability” added Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, Scientific Director of the Sao Paulo Research Foundation and Brazilian representative of the Belmont Forum of environmental research funding agencies, which is a member of the alliance establishing Future Earth. “One of the keys to the success of Future Earth will be transnational funding to support international research projects. For example, the funding agencies of the Belmont Forum have established joint calls that will bring together new international partnerships of social and natural scientists working on specific themes, such as freshwater security and coastal vulnerability.”

This interdisciplinary initiative is jointly established and scientifically sponsored by an alliance that includes the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Social Science Council (ISSC), the Belmont Forum, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations University (UNU), and strongly supported by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

“Through its broad and strong partnership, Future Earth will connect scientific research, policy development and action, and enhance the interface between science and policy to support sustainability”, said Prof. Yuan T Lee, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and ICSU President. Lee added that “we are delighted to launch the initiative here, as Rio+20 is all about pathways for a sustainable future, and Future Earth will represent one concrete step towards it.”

For more information on Future Earth, see: http://www.icsu.org/future-earth/

What does sustainability mean to you?

Sustainability is the buzz word of the week at the ICSU forum on Science, Technology, and Innovation for Sustainable Development, but sustainability means different things to different people. Here´s a snapshot of what it means to some of the participants at the Forum.

The viability of current and future well being, both social and environmental. Lori, USA

Well for me, its really about being able to sustain whatever quality of life or even improve it… and living within the system that they have right now. Joan, Philippines

It’s making sure that if we use resources we’re not exhausting them for future generations. The problem nowadays is that we are burning up our resources very quickly and that’s not sustainable at all. David, Canada

The use of innovation for developing a new world where we don´t waste and shrink our resources. Randoll, Puerto Rico

For me sustainability is something that is difficult to discuss especially when it comes to underdeveloped countries, and even more so when it comes to talking about social factors because when we talk about sustainability we are usually hearing about natural resources or the economy and we tend to forget about the social side of things. Ana, Brazil

More justice, more respect for human beings, and more respect for the Earth. Because the Earth is not for you, it’s not for me, it’s for us all, and for the future. Abdou, Senegal

Doing everything more efficiently, with lower energy. Candice, Taipei

Taking a whole systems approach in our decision-making. It’s about balancing the benefits and dis-benefits of the economic, environmental and social consequences of our decisions. It has to be informed by world-class science. Steven, UK

The ability of society to utilize the human and economic resources available, while simultaneously preserving and nurturing the environment for future generations. Kathleen, Ireland

It’s an oxymoron. Development cannot be sustainable. Stephanie, France

To me [sustainability] means thinking together, REALLY thinking together… ecology, economy, and social dimensions. It doesn’t seem like people really think about these issues together. It’s three different pillars, but we have to think about them together. Fabian, Germany

Please feel free to submit your views on sustainability in the comments!

Is now the time for all scientists to become communicators?

Long-standing tensions between the scientific community and the communicators and media professionals who serve as the primary vehicle for disseminating vital information to inform policy debates and decision makers has been a major focus of discussions at the Forum this week.

For scientists, there are dangers in being too prescriptive. Policymakers are looking for simple solutions and quick wins, but complex, interconnected problems cannot be solved with simple solutions and “silver bullets.” As Adrian Hernandez Bremauntz, Sustainability Advisor to the Dean of the Metropolitan University, Mexico City, noted in a session earlier this week, “We can inform policy by looking at the best scientific information and making it available.”

As pressure increases on the earth’s system, the need to make information and evidence available and accessible has never been greater. To prioritize policies and actions critical for ensuring sustainable development, journalists and institutional communications staff play a key role in disseminating information in ways that non-specialists can understand.

When Jonathan Watts, the Latin America correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, first started covering China in 2003, he found that the overarching story about China’s explosive economic growth was not just about trade and industry, but also about the environment and natural resource demands that underpinned the country’s rapid transformation.

“In China, I found myself writing more and more about pollution, climate change, and social protests,” he told participants at a Forum side event on communication and building bridges between science and society. ”It forces itself upon you. This is absolutely a key issue. It is a prism rather than a subject.”

For communications officers, developing tools and using the power of stories is absolutely essential to getting scientific knowledge out to decision makers.

“The tension between the communications officers and scientist is the most important piece of the puzzle,” said Coimbra Sirica, a former science journalist and a Vice President at Burness Communications, a U.S.-based public relations for the non-profit sector. “Our goal is to find a balance between capturing research with accuracy and nuance, while not overloading journalists with so much detail that will not be accessible to most newspaper readers. That tension is key to explaining science in a way that is relevant to journalists reporting to general audiences.”

The Jargon Trap

Scientists often complain about the lack of nuance in media coverage of their work. Some scientists avoid the media altogether because the rigors of objectivity in reporting findings in journals are quite different from the issues people want to read about in news coverage. This is a big problem since most non-scientists get all of their information from the media and very few have access to research published in peer-reviewed publications and other scientific reporting platforms.

“Our readers appreciate that we have boiled the complex issues down to something they can connect with,” said TV Padma, South Asia regional coordinator for the Science and Development Network (Scidev.net). “One of the biggest problems I’ve faced is this tension between the scientist and the writer.”

“I also see myself as an educator. My work informs people,” she added.

What’s ahead for the Ivory Tower?

The rise of social media platforms and the blogosphere has rapidly changed the information landscape. Mainstream media organizations are not the only game in town. There are many ways to get information, particularly from blogs and social networks. Although some scientists have joined these spaces, the most prominent voices are often advocates, not academics. In today’s world, anybody can be a public communicator. One panelist suggested that communications should become a key part of academic programs training scientists, doctors, and other fields related to scientific expertise.

“In a way, all scientists need to become communicators now,” one of the panelists said.

Honest Development: Linking Global Food Security and Sustainable Development

Benjamin Franklin, the American statesman, scientist, and political theorist, once said that agriculture was the only honest Way for nations to acquire wealth “wherein Man receives a real Increase of the Seed thrown into the Ground, in a kind of continual Miracle.”

Today, agriculture is the world’s biggest industry. The farms and pastures that provide the food responsible for sustaining the burgeoning human population covers a large portion of the Earth’s surface area not covered by oceans, deserts and ice.  Advancements in plant science and agronomy over the last few decades have led to tremendous increases in farm yields that have helped to lift millions out of poverty.

Yet despite these gains, more people go to bed hungry today than ever before in the history of the world. Moreover, the burden of current food production practices on the earth’s system in terms of GHG emissions, water, land and other natural resource uses is eroding our ability to feed the future, according to leading scientists presenting at the Forum.

During a panel discussion on food security, several experts highlighted the need to increase uptake of sustainable agriculture practices that increase farm output while reducing the impact of the global food production system on the environment and the vital natural resources that are fuel of agriculture.

“Agriculture is an engine of growth, but it needs fuel,” said Tim Benton of the University of Leeds and UK Global Food Security (GFDS) programme. “For agricultural productivity to grow and be sustained, production methods cannot continue to use resources and erode natural capital at the current rate. We need to align environmental and production camps.”